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The Oslo report on violence against sex workers

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[Hi, Feminist Current readers! Please see this response to the piece that brought you here.]

A couple years ago, as many readers will know, the Swedish government commissioned a report into the outworking of that country’s sex purchase ban. The so-called Skårhed report had numerous flaws which have been dissected elsewhere, such as terms of reference which explicitly precluded repeal of the law (“One starting point of our work has been that the purchase of sexual services is to remain criminalized”), and the fact that only seven active sex workers participated in the study and their views were dismissed anyway. Nonetheless, the law’s advocates repeatedly point to the report as if its official status rendered it ipso facto a definitive statement about the law’s impact – so I’m sure they’ll be the first to latch onto the new report commissioned by the City of Oslo, right?

Well, maybe not. For one thing, the Norwegians haven’t been as quick to have it translated as the Swedes were, although there’s a brief English-language article about it here. From that headline you’ll guess the other reason this report won’t be trumpeted by the same people who took the Swedish report as gospel: because its own findings, based on questionnaires completed by 123 active sex workers as well as interviews with police and social services, paint a decidedly more negative picture than Anna Skårhed’s.

I’m not going to get into the statistics in the Oslo report, first because (as I’ve often said) I think figures are inherently problematic in this field, and there are some methodological limitations which call for caution in interpreting the findings. It’s important to note that the authors themselves state, on page 54, that

This data does not explain whether the high incidence of violence and the vulnerability that women in prostitution experience are due to the criminalization of buying sex or other factors.

So it’s unsafe to conclude from these statistics that the law has led to more violence against sex workers. It is, however, entirely safe to state that the evidence undermines claims that the law somehow protects sex workers, either by putting manners on their clients or improving their relations with police. In fact, on page 51 the report says:

[A] 2008 report noted the possibility that the criminalization of clients can be something that protects women, they can threaten customers who behave badly, or want to break the contract, to report sex buyers to police (Tveit and Skilbrei 2008:113). Nothing in the surveys we have conducted among women and assistance services suggests that criminalization could protect women against customer violence

Since this is one of the major arguments put forward by the law’s supporters, it is extremely relevant to the debate if neither sex workers nor their support services have found it to actually have that effect.

Based on interviews with police and support services, the report identifies a number of grounds on which sex workers may now be more vulnerable to client violence. Many of these, we’ve heard before:

Another trend is that the customer base has changed in that there are fewer “good” customers than before. “Good” clients refers to men who seek out women to buy sexual services, you pay the agreed price and adhere to the agreement. These are customers who are often the typical “man in the street.” With criminalization many people believe that fewer of these types of men are buying sexual services, because this client group often consists of law-abiding citizens. They refrain from buying sex now because of the new law. These customers are known as the easiest to operate.

A reduction in the number of “bad” customers is not reported, however, from either the police or other assistance. The term “bad” customers is used about customers who do not adhere to the agreement, try to push the prices, will not have sex with a condom, show lack of respect for women by being derogatory, violent/ threatening, intoxicated, mentally unstable/ill or who attend the women with the motive to violate them – not just to buy sexual services.

The consequence of the reduction in the number of customers in total, and that there are fewer “good” customers while the number of “bad” customers remains constant, is that the “bad” customers make up a larger portion of our customer base to more women than ever before. This means that although the number of “bad” customers has not necessarily increased, sales of sexual services have become more dependent on this particular group because the earnings base from the “good” customers is reduced. (page 38)

Meanwhile, for the (mostly Thai) women selling sex out of massage parlours,

there are reports that several have stopped prostitution activities in the establishments, for fear that the business shall be identified by the police. They now include agreements in the selling of sex at massage establishments, to meet the customer at a later stage in his own apartment for the implementation of the sexual services. (page 40)

Clearly, this poses a risk to the sex worker sent off to the client’s apartment. The latter page refers also to the “individualisation” of prostitution, in which

the community of women who sell sex has been reduced… Prostitution is not something we do together in selling sex from the same street corner/flat/establishment, but which is an isolated and personal project.

 

And with that goes the safety-in-numbers effect. Page 41 cites one potential positive of this individualisation, namely

Police believe this has meant that women are less vulnerable to traffickers because it is harder for traffickers to organize prostitution.

However, it goes on immediately to say:

Nevertheless, the police believe that the women in many ways are more vulnerable to other actors, such as customers, because women are more often alone in contact with them.

It then continues on a familiar theme:

In street prostitution, services reported that the time pressure to conclude an agreement with the customer has increased considerably since criminalization. Customers are more stressed because they fear that the police will find them, making contact on the street need to be done quickly and to get away from the area quickly. For many women this poses major challenges in contact with the customer because it is difficult to achieve a clear agreement with the customer about the price, sexual favors, place of execution and condom use before they must be off with the customer. The agreements are made only when one has come to a place that is “safer” for the client, such as in a hotel room, in a vehicle or in one of the parties’ apartment.

So when buyers are criminalised, it seems, there’s an inverse relationship between their safety and the seller’s – and his is paramount in the transaction.

Unsurprisingly, the report finds that sex workers may now be more vulnerable to riskier sexual practices:

As the customer base has been somewhat reduced … several support services also report that women have had to lower the requirements they have for customers. Many women have previously had clear demands on the clients they take, nationality, substance abuse, mental health/client’s appearance are examples. The women also have other standards that were absolute, the sexual services they sell/don’t sell, how they conduct the sale, the number of customers they take the at same time, the price they take and the use of condoms. More services believe that women have been forced to lower their original demand to get clients and earn the money they need. Whether this has led to increased violence and increased rates of infection of sexually transmitted infections, it is difficult for aid services to consider, but it seems like there is a broad consensus among aid services that the women feel more vulnerable, more at risk and that they have less control of themselves in relation to the customer than before – just because they have had to lower their demands. (page 41)

This is what is known as a “buyer’s market”, where

customers to a greater extent than in the past may set the terms for the sexual services they want to buy, price, where the prostitution act shall be implemented and condom use. (page 38)

Another area in which sex workers are reported to have less control is in arranging their accommodation. This is because of an ongoing police operation, which carries the incredible name “Husløs” (homeless), aimed at enforcing the laws against indoor prostitution. Page 39 explains that this operation

means that the police notify owners of apartments / offices / hotels where prostitution is found that they will charged with pimping, if the tenancy is not terminated

As a consequence,

the rental market has become narrower for women in prostitution – both in terms of rental apartments to live in and in relation to operating a massage establishment. Prostitution support services report that according to the women, at times it has been difficult to find space for a massage establishment, because landlords will not rent apartments / rooms for people from ethnic groups associated with prostitution.

One wonders how many non-sex workers from those ethnic groups are also affected by this law. The result is that rather than being able to run their own establishment,

some women have had to get help from a Norwegian person to rent a room/studio in his name

… which means that rather than preventing dependency relationships, the law in this respect may actually encourage them. Page 39 reports a similar trend for drug-using street workers:

Among the addicts, women who still sell sex have many modified methods of how they come into contact with customers. Most aid services find that women are included in more long-term relationships with men who are referred to as “friends”, “boyfriends”, “uncles” or acquaintances. These are men they keep in touch with over the phone and that they are with for long periods, it can be about hours, days or weeks. They have sex with men in exchange for the men supplying them with drugs, money and other necessities. Many of the aid services say they feel women are very vulnerable in these relationships. The women are very dependent on the few customers they have.

Operation “Homeless” (I’m still utterly gobsmacked they call it that) also helps to explain why sex workers are reluctant to report violence to police. As page 42 notes:

Few women in the indoor sector contact the police when there is violence in the establishment or the apartment they work in because they fear that they will affected by operation “Homeless”, report aid services.

And then there’s my usual bugbear, the use of “anti-prostitution” laws as an immigration control measure. Page 37 states,

In relation to the foreign people who sell sexual services, police checks for valid identity and residence papers have soared.

On the next page,

The increase in immigration control has led to a strong presence of police in parts of the foreign prostitution environment and more are taken from Norway, while the use of various provisions of the order has resulted in more fines and being expelled for a period from various downtown areas.

The increased control of the market has meant that many of those who sell sex feel they have been criminalized. This is despite the fact that legislation has not changed in relation to those who sell sexual services. Both the police and aid services report on this trend.

Many of the aid services also report that police are no longer perceived by women as an ally they can turn to when they have been the victim of a crime because they fear that they will be checked for other conditions while in contact with the police.

This is an entirely predictable consequence of a crackdown on a market with many undocumented immigrants – and yet pro-criminalisation advocates still claim that their law will make sex workers more comfortable with police. Why in the world is this so hard for them to understand?

Notwithstanding my suspicion of figures, there is one in this report I think is worth highlighting (the usual caveats apply). On page 37 there is a reference to a study published in 2008, just before the law against buying sex took effect, in which sex workers were asked whether they thought the law would have an impact on their vulnerability to violence. 74% said yes, and of these, 90% said they would be more exposed – citing many of the same reasons already discussed here. Even accounting for any methodological weaknesses in that study, there were clearly significant concerns among sex workers as to what the law might mean for them. Why were those concerns ignored?

Page 41 gives a possible answer to that question: namely, that sex workers themselves were conceptualised as the problem that the law would address. Never mind that feminist stuff in Sweden, here it was seen as a public order issue and a highly racialised one at that:

Several support services, particularly prostitution services, report that in recent years there has been a shift in how the outside world reviews and relates to women in prostitution. This tendency can be traced back to 2006/2007 when the Nigerian women took the street prostitution market in Norway and started to sell sex in new and visible public areas. The debate often revolved around that these women acted inappropriately and immorally. Women in prostitution became more and more often referred to as disruptive and unwelcome, than as people in difficult circumstances. This focus was very clear in the debate prior to the criminalization of buying sex.

Unsurprisingly, the push for criminalisation has increased the stigma faced by sex workers:

The services reported that the direction the prostitution debate took in advance of and in connection with the ban has had a major impact on how “the man in the street” looks at women who sell sex, and they hear more women share experiences where they are harassed by strangers in public places than before.

In recent years, prostitution initiatives regularly received reports of people who attend the prostitution district of Oslo and harass women. The episodes that have been described, for example, are that individuals seek out prostitutes to shout abuse, throw things at women and behave rudely to them.

The Oslo report doesn’t address the key question in the Skårhed report, namely, whether the ban has reduced the amount of prostitution. This article cites a separate report which does; I’ll probably look at that at some future date. It’s pretty clear, though, that whatever about the statistics, the perception among those closest to the action – sex workers, their support services and the police – is that conditions are pretty rotten for those on the game in Norway’s capital and largest city. “The man in the street” in Oslo may not care about them, but for those who do or who claim to do so, there really can be no excuse for ignoring the very strong warning signals in this report and focusing immediately on how to improve these conditions – even if it means taking the foot off the End Demand train for a while.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

13 responses »

  1. Thank you for your great translation and analysis. Wasn’t it the duty of the local ORGs to facilitate an English translation of the report’s findings?

    The policy is clearly abolitionist:
    – “safety-in-numbers effect”(?) = suppression, but individualisation/isolation creates vulnerability and precariousness.
    – Police strategy “Husløs” (homeless) does the same as zone-ing and is being used here in Germany too (cf. deportation/extradition).
    – “Buyers market” is typical for sex work but also for all modern internet influenced service business (3rd economic revolution). Here is an example of a rare exemption by big oil in Germany http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=487419371272812

    Abolitionism of sex work always means to sacrifice sex workers and even sex work victims in order to “save” a society conceptualisation without prostitution (symbolic legislation and politics). We ought to pay the price !!! Therefore we sex workers are rendered either victim or criminal but always outcast.

    In times of economic downturn inclusion seems nearly impossible and scapegoating a widely used method of social control. But didn’t sex workers and allys know that before? Haven’t we not always been warned by people/institutions of society? ;-((

    Reply
  2. Excellent post and report.
    Norway seems to have some voices opposing the law unlike Ireland.

    I wonder will Ruhama issue a report 3 years after a ban here saying that violence and the situation of sex workers has gotten worse or will all their reports be about how great things are now.

    Reply
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  4. Brilliant work, thank you so much for this.

    Ironic that criminalising the buyers has created a buyers market. :/

    Reply
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  13. Oh, so abolitionist’s rescue laws don`t improve but worse prostitute’s lives. You made a discover. You say that bcause of this, they should staph. I’d be a pity if the real purpose were to create a much more hostil environment for prostitutes precarizing their labor conditions, what would you do then? That would mean that abolitionists are not wrong, and I’d also explain why they are not willing to rectify: they are doing exactly what they wanted, my dear.

    Reply

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